Dispute upends SNU cloning plans
The ambition of one of the nation s top universities to commercialize animal cloning technology has hit a roadblock.
A Texas-based firm is considering suing, claiming that Seoul National University is infringing on a patent.This has forced Seoul to suspend, at least temporarily, its cloning plans.
Seoul National University announced plans in February to establish a 100-billion-won ($95.86 million) holding company with plans to operate subsidiaries specializing in education and asset management to businesses involved in drug research and computer manufacturing.
One of the planned businesses was animal cloning, something the university helped pioneer.
Through breakthrough research, university scientists successfully cloned a dog in 2005. The achievement marked the 13th mammal that has been cloned since Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997 by British geneticists. Hwang Woo-suk and Lee Byeong-chun, then affiliated with the university, named the cloned male Afghan hound Snuppy for the English initials of the university, SNU, and the word puppy.
While Hwang was soon disgraced for fabricating later work on stem cell cloning, DNA tests proved that Snuppy was truly a cloned dog. The university continued its animal cloning projects including a female dog and a wolf.
A looming legal battle with a U.S. patent licensing firm, however, could be a major obstacle to SNU Holding s plans.
Start Licensing, Inc, a U.S.-based intellectual property rights manager, said it controls the key technology used in Seoul National University s animal cloning project.
Start manages and licenses a broad portfolio of patents related to animal reproductive technology including the foundational nuclear transfer cloning technology used by the Roslin Institute to create Dolly.
In recent e-mail exchanges and phone interviews with the JoongAng Ilbo, Cameron King, a legal adviser for patents at Start Licensing, Inc. claimed that Seoul National University s cloning projects have used that technology. King said the U.S. firm will consider legal action should SNU Holding use the technology to clone animals, saying it would infringe on its exclusive rights to the process.
Roslin Institute has registered at least three patents in Korea involving animal cloning. Hwang and Lee s team also obtained a patent for the process for cloning Snuppy.
The university s college of veterinary medicine asked patent law firms in March to assess the situation. According to the university, one of the reports said that the university s dog cloning technology might well be partially in violation of Roslin patent. The university, however, disagreed.
Dog cloning technology is exclusive to the Seoul National University, a senior official with the veterinary college at SNU said. Because Dolly s patent is overly broad, it infringes on other inventors rights.
Lee, a co-leader of the Snuppy cloning team, said patent lawyers were asked to provide their opinions on the issue and some have done so.
Lee, however, said, This is a legal matter. I am a scientist and I cannot comment on it.
SNU Holding is worried that the looming legal battle will derail its business plan.
If Start files a suit, it will take about five years for it to be settled, an official from the SNU Holding launch team said.
To avoid the risk, we have nearly reached the conclusion that we should withdraw the animal cloning plan.
It is not the first time that Start challenged a Korean firm s business plans.
RNL Bio Ltd., a venture launched by Seoul National graduates, announced last February that it would launch a dog cloning enterprise and had signed its first client for cloning a pet dog at a price tag of $50,000.
A few days later, Start announced that it controlled key animal cloning patents in Korea and that RNL was not licensed under Start s patents. The dog cloning service stopped.
Experts said SNU s predicament set off alarm bells for the nation to better protect its intellectual property in the aggressive world market.
Seoul National University owns the biggest number of patents among Korea s research institutes, Kong Min-ho, a patent lawyer, said.
However, a patent infringement suit costs at least tens of millions of won, and it is impossible for a school to be responsible for the battle. Maybe the government can establish a system to help defray the costs.
Seoul National is a state-run university.
Patent disputes are relatively new to Korea, Kong said. SNU owns many patents, but does not have a single patent attorney.
It s too late to begin the work after a foreign company warns of a patent infringement suit, Kong said. Far from exploring overseas markets, it is impossible to protect its own technology.
By Name Staff Reporter JoongAng Ilbo [firstname.lastname@example.org]